One of the most common questions students hear is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For many individuals that answer is subject to change over time. You may have been obsessed with becoming an astronaut in fifth grade, but by the time you reached eighth grade you may have wanted to become a world-famous author.
“What should I go to college for?” is a challenging question to answer for many people. This article is a decision-making guide on picking a major and offers some food for thought that can help inform your choice.
In This Article:
- Why Is Picking a Major So Difficult?
- Going to College Before Choosing a Major
- Brainstorm a List of All Your Interests
- Develop a List of Career Opportunities You Aren't Interested In
- Consider Your Priorities and Match Them to Career Opportunities
- Consider These Top Majors for Careers After High School
- Consider Taking a Gap Year Before Choosing a Major
- What If You Still Aren’t Sure?
Why Is Picking a Major So Difficult?
One reason why this question is so tough to answer is because it sounds so final. You make a decision, declare a major and begin working along your career pathway toward your dream job. But what happens if you make a mistake and, after you’re already working at your “dream job,” you discover that your choice is not making you happy after all?
It can sometimes seem like you absolutely must get your decision right the first time, and that can lead to not making a decision at all. But you should always remember that you can indeed change your mind at any point along your career pathway — plenty of people do.
Switching to an entirely different career is certainly not out of the question. From early 2020 to early 2022, about 20% of American workers transitioned to a different career, and 46% of employees gave it serious consideration.1
You can even change your major while you’re in college — up to a certain point. If you think there’s a chance you’ll switch to a different major, talk to your academic advisor to find out what the deadline is. You’ll need to be sure you’ll have enough time left to complete all of the credit requirements for your new major, or you may need to plan on taking an extra semester or two to complete your degree requirements.
In short, choosing a major and a career doesn’t have to be a final decision. Knowing that you can change career paths if need be should help take some of the pressure off as you think about your own answer to the question, “What should I go to college for?”
Going to College Before Choosing a Major
You might be wondering if you really should go to college if you aren’t sure what you’d like to study. The short answer is yes, you really do need a degree if you want to land a professional job. Although it’s possible to land a good job without a degree, your chances of doing so will increase significantly with a degree — and many types of jobs exclude non-college graduates entirely.
In short, a college degree can be considered a necessity for anyone who would like to pursue some sort of professional career — even if they aren’t sure which career they want. If you don’t want to commit to a full degree program just yet; you do have other options.
Consider looking into enrollment at a graduate certificate program at a university or college, you often need a bachelor’s degree to enter into a graduate certificate program. A graduate certificate program typically consists of just a few college classes.
Plus, earning a graduate certificate can allow you to explore an area that may be of interest. You’ll be able to learn more about that particular field before committing to a full master’s degree program.
There is a wide range of certificates you could earn. If you love history, for example, consider earning a Graduate Certificate in History. Considering a career in social work? Earn a Graduate Certificate in Sociology.
Brainstorm a List of All Your Interests
If you seek advice from your guidance counselor or others about potential career paths, you may be advised to develop a list of all of your interests. This is sound advice, as it can increase the chances you’ll pick a major and a career that you’ll love. However, it’s important not to limit yourself to answering the question, “What are your favorite subjects?”
Instead, consider all of the activities you’ve done over the past few years. Which stand out in your memory for the right reasons? Here’s a look at some examples:
- Playing on the high school baseball team
- Visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Taking a vacation in the Caribbean
- Being a language arts tutor for elementary school children
- Receiving a pair of designer sneakers as a birthday gift
All of these activities, even taking a vacation, can help with picking a major and have the potential to lead to a career. If you enjoy visiting museums, consider becoming a museum curator or a history professor. A love of tutoring could naturally lead to a career as a teacher, and a passion for design may lead you to a career as a digital designer or perhaps a writer for designer magazines.
In addition to considering your interests, take some time to think about your strengths. If your friends and family turn to you for help troubleshooting their computer problems, for instance, then perhaps a career in information technology (IT) could be the right choice for you.
You may want to ask your high school guidance counselor for a career aptitude and skills test. These aren’t foolproof, of course, but it can give you some additional options to think about when choosing a major.
Develop a List of Career Opportunities You Aren't Interested In
If you’re still having trouble figuring out where your main interests lie, it can be helpful to develop a list of fields and careers that you’d like to exclude. Think about the subjects in school that you struggle with. If you’re having trouble with math class, for example, then a STEM career might not be the best choice for you.
Next, consider other aspects of life that you either struggle with or simply aren’t interested in. If you have trouble relating to young children, for instance, then becoming a pediatrician or a school counselor probably aren’t the best choices. If you aren’t interested in sitting in front of a computer all day, then an office job (e.g. copywriter or accountant) is likely not the right path for you.
Consider Your Priorities and Match Them to Career Opportunities
Reflecting upon your interests and strengths is a useful way to identify potential careers after high school. While you’re working on narrowing down the list of possibilities, it can be helpful to consider your ancillary priorities. For example, consider how important the following factors are to you:
- A lucrative salary and good benefits
- Opportunity for advancement, such as to an executive-level position
- Type of work environment (e.g. office job or fieldwork)
- Amount of travel required
- Job security/job outlook for the foreseeable future
- Level of activity (sedentary or highly active)
- Meaningfulness of the field (is the work in service to others, like social work?)
- Location of the job (e.g. more likely to find work in a major city or a rural area)
While you’re sorting through your priorities, one good resource to refer to is the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. You can search the handbook for specific careers, and then view information on those careers’ typical work environments, job tasks, salary ranges and other variables.
Consider These Top Majors for Careers After High School
Another way to narrow down the list of possibilities for careers after high school is to browse through some of the most popular college majors. Here’s a quick look:
Communications – A Bachelor of Arts in Communications is a highly versatile and flexible degree that could lead to a broad spectrum of careers, which is one reason why it’s so popular. A communications major could go on to become a public relation managers, editors, technical writers, writers or authors—the list goes on.
Computer Science – STEM majors such as computer science have been popular for quite a long time, with good reason. There is the promise of a lucrative salary and plentiful jobs, both in and out of Silicon Valley. A graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science could go on to be computer programmers, software developers or data scientists
Business Management – A Bachelor of Science in Business Management degree explores key competencies needed in the corporate world, such as organizational science and management. One thing it doesn’t do is limit your choice of industry. With this type of degree, you could work in a wide range of fields—from manufacturing to logistics to fashion to food production.
Nursing – If you prefer to pursue a career that would allow you to help other people, what better field than healthcare? Nurses are essential providers who diagnose, treat and educate patients, helping them manage conditions both chronic and acute. It’s a good career field for those who crave meaningful work.
Psychology – Another field that many people find highly meaningful is psychology. As an aspiring psychologist, you could help your patients work through major challenges in their life. To become a psychologist, you’ll also need a doctorate, not just a bachelor’s degree; however, there are entry-level jobs in this field for baccalaureate graduates.
Counseling – If you like the idea of becoming a psychologist, but aren’t sure you want to earn a doctorate degree, becoming a counselor is a good alternative. You’ll only need a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree plus work experience hours to earn licensure as a counselor.
Consider Taking a Gap Year Before Choosing a Major
If you’re still having trouble narrowing down your choices and you prefer to head to college with a career in mind, then you might consider taking a gap year after high school. Talk to your parents or guardians and your guidance counselor about this possibility. Gap years can be a great way to explore your self-identity and figure out your place in the world—if they’re done correctly.
A gap year shouldn’t be an excuse to sit on the couch and watch sitcoms. Instead, it should be an opportunity to experience the world and explore your passions. You can enroll in a structured gap year program (there is a veritable laundry list of options; check the Gap Year Association for information) or do a self-planned gap year.
- Regardless of which route you choose, your gap year can be a way to narrow down your career possibilities. You might consider doing the following:
- Learn a new language using the immersive approach, such as by temporarily living in a different country.
- Apply for internships in other parts of the country or around the world.
- Take enrichment programs.
- Participate in a volunteer program, such as by working on sea turtle conservation in Belize or sustainable development initiatives in Madagascar.
- Pursue a passion project (e.g. write a novel or write and record your own music).
The possibilities are virtually limitless. You’ll notice, however, that gap year programs often involve international travel, with good reason. Seeing the world can be a great way to figure out where your place in it lies.
Note that even if you elect not to take a gap year, you can still pursue your passions outside of the classroom. When you do go on to college, check out the study abroad program.
What If You Still Aren’t Sure?
If you’ve taken the time to reflect upon your interests and strengths, you’re likely to have at least a vague idea of some options you might consider pursuing. If you’re still not sure, however, there is a last resort you could consider. Declare a liberal arts major, such as the following:
- Fine arts
- Performing arts
- Foreign languages
Why choose a liberal arts degree if you’re having trouble picking the right major for you? Quite simply, a liberal arts degree is typically the most versatile choice because it will teach you a range of transferrable skills that can be applied to many different fields, industries and career paths. Remember that you may be able to switch your major (depending on how far along you are in college) if you do decide to choose a different career path.
No matter where you are in your decision-making journey, you’ll find a supportive home at Grand Canyon University (GCU). Career Services at the Academic and Career Excellence (ACE) Centers offers extensive student support services and resources to help you identify and pursue a meaningful career you’ll enjoy. From our knowledgeable faculty to our dedicated staff, our entire community strives to create an impactful and positive GCU experience for our students.
1 Retrieved from The Motley Fool, Here's Why 20% of Americans Have Changed Careers Since the Pandemic Began in October 2022.
Approved by college reviewer on Jan. 24, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.